A seventeenth-century Jesuit missionary to China once related a story about a Nanjing man who sued a local deity, his case being that the god had accepted his sacrifices but failed to save his ailing daughter and so must be either impotent or malicious. District officials balked but referred the case to the imperial court in Beijing, which ruled against the deity—declaring it officially useless, exiling its cult statue, and ordering its monastery be destroyed.
Toy company Mattel sued MCA Records in 1997, alleging the hit pop song “Barbie Girl” by Aqua violated trademark. Justice Alex Kozinski (who retired in 2017 while facing allegations of sexual misconduct) argued for the Ninth Circuit that the song was protected as parody. He ended his opinion, “The parties are advised to chill.”
In 1873 elderly sisters Julia and Abby Smith of Glastonbury, Connecticut, were incensed to learn that a local property-tax hike had been imposed only on women. At a town meeting, Abby decried how “liberty is so highly extolled,” yet “one half of the inhabitants are not put under her laws, but are ruled over by the other half.” When the Smiths demanded voting rights, the town seized their cows. The standoff became such a cause célèbre that a Chicago market sold the cows’ tail hair wrapped in ribbons reading “Taxation Without Representation.”
A third-century collection of Roman jurisprudence includes sentences for adulterers: a woman is to be exiled to an island; a man, “punished by a similar exile to an island.” Later scholars clarified: the man’s exile is “presumably to a different island from that of the woman.”
Nineteenth-century British penologist Matthew Davenport Hill, who believed justice to be debased by fees extracted throughout the legal process, often cited mock examination questions given by Cambridge professor Richard Porson. “What happens if you win your cause?” asks the first, to which the answer is “You are nearly ruined.” The second: “What happens if you lose your cause?” Answer: “You are quite ruined.”
A copy of crew rules kept by eighteenth-century pirate captain Bartholomew Roberts was found after his death in 1722. These granted each man equal title to “strong liquors at any time seized,” threatened with death anyone found seducing a woman “and carrying her to sea in disguise,” and prohibited discussion of “breaking up their way of living” until each pirate had earned £1,000.
A section on law and justice in the Arthashastra, an ancient Indian manual of statecraft, describes an apparently coveted capital punishment. “Being gored to death by an elephant is as meritorious as having the sacred bath at the end of the ashvamedha horse sacrifice,” it reads. Anyone seeking this sentence is required to provide gifts of rice, wine, and garlands as well as “a piece of cloth to clean the tusks.”
A British law dictates that any whale, porpoise, or sturgeon caught near the coast or cast ashore is a “royal fish” and belongs to the Crown. Specifics were refined in a 1610 parliamentary debate over the ownership of the salmon population in the Irish River Bann. “Though they are great fish,” said Lord Robert Hale, who argued these salmon should be considered part of the commons, “they are not royal fish.”
After his first wife’s suicide, Percy Bysshe Shelley applied for custody of their children. Lord Eldon denied his petition, citing the poet’s conduct and principles, which, wrote the lord, “the law calls upon me to consider as immoral and vicious” as well as “inconsistent with the duties of persons in such relations of life.”
Inspired by Catherine the Great’s 1767 assertion that law should promote general happiness, Jeremy Bentham brought his own massive law code with him to Russia in 1785 to present to her. But the single time Catherine visited the western district where the utilitarian philosopher had rented a cottage, Bentham remained inside—“stubbornly diffident,” according to an account—and the two never met.
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins is hired by dwarfs to steal a dragon’s treasure. The agreement in the 1937 novel is only two sentences, but the 2012 movie adaptation substantially expanded the contract; souvenir reproductions of the film prop measure five feet in length. One law blogger deemed it to be “pretty well written” despite noticing a certain inconsistency regarding whether Baggins is the dwarfs’ employee or an independent contractor.
In a September 1820 letter, Thomas Jefferson warned that “to consider the judges as the ultimate arbiters of all constitutional questions” would “place us under the despotism of an oligarchy. Our judges are as honest as other men, and not more so.” A letter three months later was more incendiary, calling the judiciary “the subtle corps of sappers and miners constantly working underground to undermine the foundations of our confederated fabric.”
“Have you eaten a body scab to gain health, or have you drunk a solution of those little worms called lice, or drunk human urine, or eaten any feces to gain health?” asks Burchard of Worms’ collection of canon law, compiled around 1008. “If you have, you should do penance for ten days on bread and water.”
Japanese imperial history relates that Prince Shotoku “in person prepared for the first time laws” with a constitution in 604. “All men are influenced by class feelings, and there are few who are intelligent,” he declared, lamenting bribe-taking judges with whom lawsuits by rich men are always effective—“like the stone flung into water”—while the “plaints of the poor” never get anywhere, as “water cast upon a stone.”
While at war to end Sparta’s regional supremacy, Theban general Epaminondas persuaded his soldiers to fight an extra four months, in violation of law; for this he was condemned to death on returning home victorious. He made no defense but proposed an inscription be made clarifying that “Epaminondas was punished by the Thebans with death” because “he not only saved Thebes from destruction but also secured freedom for all Greece.” The jury broke into laughter and refused to carry out the sentence.